x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Burnley look east for support

The club rounded off a successful tour with a 1-0 win over a Singapore select side last night after the owner decided to sponsor the trip to boost their appeal.

Burnley players applaud their loyal fans after a 4-0 loss to Liverpool in April sealed their relegation to the Championship.
Burnley players applaud their loyal fans after a 4-0 loss to Liverpool in April sealed their relegation to the Championship.

Businessman John Banaszkiewicz was so fed up with the English Premier League's top four teams claiming all the support in south-east Asia that he decided to sponsor his beloved Burnley on a trip to Singapore to boost their appeal. The co-founder of Freight Investor Services LTD, who travels to Singapore bi-monthly for business, watched proudly as his club rounded off a successful tour with a 1-0 win over a Singapore select side last night.

But hundreds of the few thousand in attendance on a muggy evening at the Jalan Besar Stadium showed up in Manchester United shirts, demonstrating the challenge ahead for Burnley and Banaszkiewicz. "It is a small country but such a big market for football and we would like to get more claret and blue supporters in this part of the world," a sharply dressed Banaszkiewicz told Reuters. "I always felt there were only three or four clubs that dominate south-east Asia and this team [Burnley] has a rich tradition and has beaten some of those big clubs last season. This isn't going to be a one-off."

Singaporeans are obsessed with the Premier League, and the top four especially. On weekends, establishments showing their games are normally lined with fans in the red of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal and the blue of Chelsea, eager to catch every minute of their matches. Burnley were promoted to the Premier League for 2009/10, their first campaign in the top flight for 33 years, but the Lancashire club went straight back down to the Championship after one season.

But with Burnley's surprise 1-0 win over Manchester United in last season's Premier League and this trip to Singapore, the Burnley-born Banaszkiewicz said he had already noticed an increase in interest in the two-time English champions. "I said [to the hairdresser] I am going to watch Burnley and they were like 'oh yes 5-0 [referring to the midweek win over Home United] they are playing Singapore' so slowly the message is coming across."

The story of how Burnley made it to the tiny south-east Asian city state is an unlikely one which started with the clocks in the London office of Banaszkiewicz's company earlier this year and demonstrated a warmth that the club should market. "We have all the world clocks because we deal with commodities and trading and we put a clock where our offices are, so Shanghai, Singapore, Dubai and I put one with Burnley on the wall," a chuckling Banaszkiewicz said.

With the prank providing some office laughs John B, as he is more commonly known in Burnley circles, decided to send a photograph of the clocks to the then Premier League side. The photo prompted Burnley to invite Banaszkiewicz to come to watch the 2-1 home defeat by eventual Premier League winners Chelsea at the end of January. "At that time they were discussing their shirt sponsorship with Fun88, which is a Singapore-based company, and I said they are absolutely mad about football out there [Singapore] so what about organising a tour?" Banaszkiewicz said.

"It has been a bit of an experience to be honest because we have never done anything like that before, it is normally done by agents so we have pretty much done a DIY job ourselves." So as the Premier League's top clubs looked at North America, Australia, Africa or Asia for their usually lavish pre-season tours, Banaszkiewicz started organising a visit to south east Asia. "We were hoping to play in Indonesia as well and Thailand because it was meant to be a bit of a bonding session for the players but we weren't able to do that in the end because it was deemed a security risk so they decided to [just] come here."

And Banaszkiewicz believes the key to building support in the region is for the club to show that modest side, which they demonstrated by attending coaching camps and meeting the locals. "[English team's pre-season tours] tend to be very quick trips by clubs like Liverpool, who were here one day and were a bit prima donna-ish [they] kind of went and left where as these guys have mingled and talked to people. I think the team have done very well."

* Reuters